Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Neural correlates of the positive effects of gratitude.

Fox offers a review noting studies showing that gratitude activates area of the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain associated with understanding other people’s perspectives, empathy, and feelings of relief - an area of the brain that also is massively connected to the systems in the body and brain that regulate emotion and support the process of stress relief. He points in particular to the work of Kini et al.. Their abstract:
Gratitude is a common aspect of social interaction, yet relatively little is known about the neural bases of gratitude expression, nor how gratitude expression may lead to longer-term effects on brain activity. To address these twin issues, we recruited subjects who coincidentally were entering psychotherapy for depression and/or anxiety. One group participated in a gratitude writing intervention, which required them to write letters expressing gratitude. The therapy-as-usual control group did not perform a writing intervention. After three months, subjects performed a “Pay It Forward” task in the fMRI scanner. In the task, subjects were repeatedly endowed with a monetary gift and then asked to pass it on to a charitable cause to the extent they felt grateful for the gift. Operationalizing gratitude as monetary gifts allowed us to engage the subjects and quantify the gratitude expression for subsequent analyses. We measured brain activity and found regions where activity correlated with self-reported gratitude experience during the task, even including related constructs such as guilt motivation and desire to help as statistical controls. These were mostly distinct from brain regions activated by empathy or theory of mind. Also, our between groups cross-sectional study found that a simple gratitude writing intervention was associated with significantly greater and lasting neural sensitivity to gratitude – subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing showed both behavioral increases in gratitude and significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later.
Fox also points to an article suggesting a role for mu-Opioids in mediating the positive effects of gratitude.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Exposure to and recall of violence reduce short-term memory and cognitive control

From Bogliacino et al.:

Significance
Research on violence has mainly focused on its consequences on individuals’ health and behavior. This study establishes the effects of exposure to violence on individuals’ short-term memory and cognitive control. These are key factors affecting individual well-being and societal development. We sampled Colombian civilians who were exposed either to urban violence or to warfare. We found that higher exposure to violence significantly reduces short-term memory and cognitive control only in the group actively recalling emotional states linked with such experiences. This finding demonstrates and characterizes the long-lasting effects of violence. Existing studies have found effects of poverty on cognitive control similar to those that we found for violence. This set of findings supports the validity of the cognitive theory underpinning these studies.
Abstract
Previous research has investigated the effects of violence and warfare on individuals' well-being, mental health, and individual prosociality and risk aversion. This study establishes the short- and long-term effects of exposure to violence on short-term memory and aspects of cognitive control. Short-term memory is the ability to store information. Cognitive control is the capacity to exert inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Both have been shown to affect positively individual well-being and societal development. We sampled Colombian civilians who were exposed either to urban violence or to warfare more than a decade earlier. We assessed exposure to violence through either the urban district-level homicide rate or self-reported measures. Before undertaking cognitive tests, a randomly selected subset of our sample was asked to recall emotions of anxiety and fear connected to experiences of violence, whereas the rest recalled joyful or emotionally neutral experiences. We found that higher exposure to violence was associated with lower short-term memory abilities and lower cognitive control in the group recalling experiences of violence, whereas it had no effect in the other group. This finding demonstrates that exposure to violence, even if a decade earlier, can hamper cognitive functions, but only among individuals actively recalling emotional states linked with such experiences. A laboratory experiment conducted in Germany aimed to separate the effect of recalling violent events from the effect of emotions of fear and anxiety. Both factors had significant negative effects on cognitive functions and appeared to be independent from each other.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Leisure just as enjoyable before as after work is done.

From O'Brien and Roney:
Four studies reveal that (a) people hold a robust intuition about the order of work and leisure and that (b) this intuition is sometimes mistaken. People prefer saving leisure for last, believing they would otherwise be distracted by looming work (Study 1). In controlled experiments, however, although subjects thought their enjoyment would be spoiled when they played a game before rather than after a laborious problem-solving task, got a massage before rather than after midterms, and consumed snacks and watched videos before rather than after a stressful performance, in reality these experiences were similarly enjoyable regardless of order (Studies 2 through 4). This misprediction was indeed mediated by anticipated distraction and was therefore attenuated after people were reminded of the absorbing nature of enjoyable activities (Studies 3 and 4). These studies highlight the power of hedonic experience within the moment of consumption, which has implications for managing (or mismanaging) everyday work and leisure. People might postpone leisure and overwork for future rewards that could be just as pleasurable in the present.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Perception of being overweight predicts future health and well-being

An interesting bit from Daly et al.:
Identifying oneself as being overweight may be associated with adverse health outcomes, yet prospective tests of this possibility are lacking. Over 7 years, we examined associations between perceptions of being overweight and subsequent health in a sample of 3,582 U.S. adults. Perceiving oneself as being overweight predicted longitudinal declines in subjective health (d = −0.22, p less than .001), increases in depressive symptoms (d = 0.09, p less than .05), and raised levels of physiological dysregulation (d = 0.24, p less than .001), as gauged by clinical indicators of cardiovascular, inflammatory, and metabolic functioning. These associations remained after controlling for a range of potential confounders and were observed irrespective of whether perceptions of being overweight were accurate or inaccurate. This research highlights the possibility that identifying oneself as overweight may act independently of body mass index to contribute to unhealthy profiles of physiological functioning and impaired health over time. These findings underscore the importance of evaluating whether weight-feedback interventions may have unforeseen adverse consequences.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

In group favoritism shown by 17 month old infants.

Jin and Baillargeon make observations that suggest an early origin of the 'us and them' perspective being taken to extremes in our current political climate.
One pervasive facet of human interactions is the tendency to favor ingroups over outgroups. Remarkably, this tendency has been observed even when individuals are assigned to minimal groups based on arbitrary markers. Why is mere categorization into a minimal group sufficient to elicit some degree of ingroup favoritism? We consider several accounts that have been proposed in answer to this question and then test one particular account, which holds that ingroup favoritism reflects in part an abstract and early-emerging sociomoral expectation of ingroup support. In violation-of-expectation experiments with 17-mo-old infants, unfamiliar women were first identified (using novel labels) as belonging to the same group, to different groups, or to unspecified groups. Next, one woman needed instrumental assistance to achieve her goal, and another woman either provided the necessary assistance (help event) or chose not to do so (ignore event). When the two women belonged to the same group, infants looked significantly longer if shown the ignore as opposed to the help event; when the two women belonged to different groups or to unspecified groups, however, infants looked equally at the two events. Together, these results indicate that infants view helping as expected among individuals from the same group, but as optional otherwise. As such, the results demonstrate that from an early age, an abstract expectation of ingroup support contributes to ingroup favoritism in human interactions.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Redistribution is supported by compassion, envy, and self interest, but not sense of fairness.

A huge collaboration looks at support for redistribution of wealth from an evolutionary psychology perspective:

Significance
Markets have lifted millions out of poverty, but considerable inequality remains and there is a large worldwide demand for redistribution. Although economists, philosophers, and public policy analysts debate the merits and demerits of various redistributive programs, a parallel debate has focused on voters’ motives for supporting redistribution. Understanding these motives is crucial, for the performance of a policy cannot be meaningfully evaluated except in the light of intended ends. Unfortunately, existing approaches pose ill-specified motives. Chief among them is fairness, a notion that feels intuitive but often rests on multiple inconsistent principles. We show that evolved motives for navigating interpersonal interactions clearly predict attitudes about redistribution, but a taste for procedural fairness or distributional fairness does not.
Abstract
Why do people support economic redistribution? Hypotheses include inequity aversion, a moral sense that inequality is intrinsically unfair, and cultural explanations such as exposure to and assimilation of culturally transmitted ideologies. However, humans have been interacting with worse-off and better-off individuals over evolutionary time, and our motivational systems may have been naturally selected to navigate the opportunities and challenges posed by such recurrent interactions. We hypothesize that modern redistribution is perceived as an ancestral scene involving three notional players: the needy other, the better-off other, and the actor herself. We explore how three motivational systems—compassion, self-interest, and envy—guide responses to the needy other and the better-off other, and how they pattern responses to redistribution. Data from the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and Israel support this model. Endorsement of redistribution is independently predicted by dispositional compassion, dispositional envy, and the expectation of personal gain from redistribution. By contrast, a taste for fairness, in the sense of (i) universality in the application of laws and standards, or (ii) low variance in group-level payoffs, fails to predict attitudes about redistribution.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Smiles for love, sympathy, and war.

From Rychlowska et al.:
A smile is the most frequent facial expression, but not all smiles are equal. A social-functional account holds that smiles of reward, affiliation, and dominance serve basic social functions, including rewarding behavior, bonding socially, and negotiating hierarchy. Here, we characterize the facial-expression patterns associated with these three types of smiles. Specifically, we modeled the facial expressions using a data-driven approach and showed that reward smiles are symmetrical and accompanied by eyebrow raising, affiliative smiles involve lip pressing, and dominance smiles are asymmetrical and contain nose wrinkling and upper-lip raising. A Bayesian-classifier analysis and a detection task revealed that the three smile types are highly distinct. Finally, social judgments made by a separate participant group showed that the different smile types convey different social messages. Our results provide the first detailed description of the physical form and social messages conveyed by these three types of functional smiles and document the versatility of these facial expressions.  (click on figure to enlarge). 

Monday, August 07, 2017

Why it's a bad idea to tell students that words are violence

A piece by Haidt and Lukianoff contesting several points made by Lisa Friedman in a much discussed NYTimes Grey Matter essay is worth a read. After noting that Friedman makes the valid and well known point that chronic stress can cause physical damage to the body, they contest her logic that follows:
Feldman Barrett used these empirical findings to advance a syllogism: “If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech—at least certain types of speech—can be a form of violence.” It is logically true that if A can cause B and B can cause C, then A can cause C. But following this logic, the resulting inference should be merely that words can cause physical harm, not that words are violence. If you’re not convinced, just re-run the syllogism starting with “gossiping about a rival,” for example, or “giving one’s students a lot of homework.” Both practices can cause prolonged stress to others, but that doesn’t turn them into forms of violence.
Friedman also notes that brief adversity, like being exposed to a distasteful perspective, can be a 'good kind of stress,' not harmful to the body, but rather building more resilience and strength. She notes further that a political or social climate exposing people to hateful words or casual brutality, can be toxic to the body, and then follows with a second invalid point:
That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.
Haidt and Lukianoff:
But wait, wasn’t Feldman Barrett’s key point the contrast between short- and long-term stressors? What would have happened had Yiannopoulos been allowed to speak at Berkeley? He would have faced a gigantic crowd of peaceful protesters, inside and outside the venue. The event would have been over in two hours. Any students who thought his words would cause them trauma could have avoided the talk and left the protesting to others. Anyone who joined the protests would have left with a strong sense of campus solidarity. And most importantly, all Berkeley students would have learned an essential lesson for life in 2017: How to encounter a troll without losing one’s cool. (The goal of a troll, after all, is to make people lose their cool.)

Friday, August 04, 2017

A positive mood from listening to music broadens our auditory attention.

An addition to the literature from Putkinen et al. expanding on previous findings that positive mood broadens visual attention:
Previous studies indicate that positive mood broadens the scope of visual attention, which can manifest as heightened distractibility. We used event-related potentials (ERP) to investigate whether music-induced positive mood has comparable effects on selective attention in the auditory domain. Subjects listened to experimenter-selected happy, neutral or sad instrumental music and afterwards participated in a dichotic listening task. Distractor sounds in the unattended channel elicited responses related to early sound encoding (N1/MMN) and bottom-up attention capture (P3a) while target sounds in the attended channel elicited a response related to top-down-controlled processing of task-relevant stimuli (P3b). For the subjects in a happy mood, the N1/MMN responses to the distractor sounds were enlarged while the P3b elicited by the target sounds was diminished. Behaviorally, these subjects tended to show heightened error rates on target trials following the distractor sounds. Thus, the ERP and behavioral results indicate that the subjects in a happy mood allocated their attentional resources more diffusely across the attended and the to-be-ignored channels. Therefore, the current study extends previous research on the effects of mood on visual attention and indicates that even unfamiliar instrumental music can broaden the scope of auditory attention via its effects on mood.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Default mode network and the wandering mind.

The respective roles of attentional and default mode networks in our brains has been the subject of numerous MindBlog posts (enter 'default mode' in the search box in the left column). Here is a further installment from Poerio et al.:
Experiences such as mind-wandering illustrate that cognition is not always tethered to events in the here-and-now. Although converging evidence emphasises the default mode network (DMN) in mind-wandering, its precise contribution remains unclear. The DMN comprises cortical regions that are maximally distant from primary sensory and motor cortex, a topological location that may support the stimulus-independence of mind-wandering. The DMN is functionally heterogeneous, comprising regions engaged by memory, social cognition and planning; processes relevant to mind-wandering content. Our study examined the relationships between: (i) individual differences in resting-state DMN connectivity, (ii) performance on memory, social and planning tasks and (iii) variability in spontaneous thought, to investigate whether the DMN is critical to mind-wandering because it supports stimulus-independent cognition, memory retrieval, or both. Individual variation in task performance modulated the functional organization of the DMN: poor external engagement was linked to stronger coupling between medial and dorsal subsystems, while decoupling of the core from the cerebellum predicted reports of detailed memory retrieval. Both patterns predicted off-task future thoughts. Consistent with predictions from component process accounts of mind-wandering, our study suggests a 2-fold involvement of the DMN: (i) it supports experiences that are unrelated to the environment through strong coupling between its sub-systems; (ii) it allows memory representations to form the basis of conscious experience.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The real threat of artificial intelligence

I want to pass on some clips from a very cogent article by Kai-Fu Lee (chairman and chief executive of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital firm, and the president of its Artificial Intelligence Institute). Then you might like to note the article by Gary Marcus suggesting that A.I. has a long way to go before bringing us to the crisis Lee suggests.
What is artificial intelligence today? Roughly speaking, it’s technology that takes in huge amounts of information from a specific domain (say, loan repayment histories) and uses it to make a decision in a specific case (whether to give an individual a loan)...This kind of A.I. is spreading to thousands of domains (not just loans), and as it does, it will eliminate many jobs. Bank tellers, customer service representatives, telemarketers, stock and bond traders, even paralegals and radiologists will gradually be replaced by such software. Over time this technology will come to control semiautonomous and autonomous hardware like self-driving cars and robots, displacing factory workers, construction workers, drivers, delivery workers and many others.
Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too...This transformation will result in enormous profits for the companies that develop A.I., as well as for the companies that adopt it.
We are thus facing two developments that do not sit easily together: enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work. What is to be done?
The solution to the problem of mass unemployment, I suspect, will involve “service jobs of love.” These are jobs that A.I. cannot do, that society needs and that give people a sense of purpose. Examples include accompanying an older person to visit a doctor, mentoring at an orphanage and serving as a sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous — or, potentially soon, Virtual Reality Anonymous (for those addicted to their parallel lives in computer-generated simulations). The volunteer service jobs of today, in other words, may turn into the real jobs of the future.
Who will pay for these jobs? Here is where the enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands comes in. It strikes me as unavoidable that large chunks of the money created by A.I. will have to be transferred to those whose jobs have been displaced. This seems feasible only through Keynesian policies of increased government spending, presumably raised through taxation on wealthy companies.
The Keynesian approach I have sketched out may be feasible in the United States and China, which will have enough successful A.I. businesses to fund welfare initiatives via taxes. But what about other countries? ...They face two insurmountable problems. First, most of the money being made from artificial intelligence will go to the United States and China. A.I. is an industry in which strength begets strength...The other challenge for many countries that are not China or the United States is that their populations are increasing, especially in the developing world. While a large, growing population can be an economic asset (as in China and India in recent decades), in the age of A.I. it will be an economic liability because it will comprise mostly displaced workers, not productive ones.
So if most countries will not be able to tax ultra-profitable A.I. companies to subsidize their workers, what options will they have? I foresee only one: Unless they wish to plunge their people into poverty, they will be forced to negotiate with whichever country supplies most of their A.I. software — China or the United States — to essentially become that country’s economic dependent, taking in welfare subsidies in exchange for letting the “parent” nation’s A.I. companies continue to profit from the dependent country’s users. Such economic arrangements would reshape today’s geopolitical alliances.
One way or another, we are going to have to start thinking about how to minimize the looming A.I.-fueled gap between the haves and the have-nots, both within and between nations. Or to put the matter more optimistically: A.I. is presenting us with an opportunity to rethink economic inequality on a global scale. These challenges are too far-ranging in their effects for any nation to isolate itself from the rest of the world.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Buying time promotes happiness.

A nice piece from Whillans et al.:

Significance
Despite rising incomes, people around the world are feeling increasingly pressed for time, undermining well-being. We show that the time famine of modern life can be reduced by using money to buy time. Surveys of large, diverse samples from four countries reveal that spending money on time-saving services is linked to greater life satisfaction. To establish causality, we show that working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase. This research reveals a previously unexamined route from wealth to well-being: spending money to buy free time.
Abstract
Around the world, increases in wealth have produced an unintended consequence: a rising sense of time scarcity. We provide evidence that using money to buy time can provide a buffer against this time famine, thereby promoting happiness. Using large, diverse samples from the United States, Canada, Denmark, and The Netherlands (n = 6,271), we show that individuals who spend money on time-saving services report greater life satisfaction. A field experiment provides causal evidence that working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase. Together, these results suggest that using money to buy time can protect people from the detrimental effects of time pressure on life satisfaction.